As millions of tons of valuable resources go into landfills, the economic case for recovering and reusing raw materials becomes inevitable. What part can designers and businesses play in this process? An important part, considering that approximately 80% of a product’s environmental impact is ‘locked in’ at the design stage. In this context, the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) in London has launched a programme called The Great Recovery. Started in September 2012 and run in partnership with the Technology Strategy Board, UK’s innovation agency, with support from industrial players, it seeks to fill the knowledge and innovation gaps associated with designing for a circular-economy model: one which considers the system as a whole rather than focus on individual components or products. In the words of Sophie Thomas, RSA’s co-director of design, “Designing in this way is complex. Gone are the days of ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco’ design, when a simple change of material to a recycled alternative would give a project environmental credibility. This system demands true co-creation, with all stakeholders involved in the lifecycle of a particular product. Finally, it requires a new logistical approach to capturing and re-circulating materials.” And, Thomas noted, “This effort needs to be led by businesses. At the moment, it is rare to see a company setting a design brief that includes requirements to recover material. Now, however, the business model is changing and the economic imperative for recovery is growing stronger.” To support designers in this effort, four design principles have been identified and explained at a recent RSA event by Nat Hunter, the project’s co-chair. They are:
**Design for longevity **— Well made, well crafted products that don't need to be thrown away and are repairable should they break.
Design for service — New digital platforms facilitate the leasing or sharing of products (think car sharing) and the service layer is often what makes the product ‘work.’
Design for re-use and manufacture — For example, the cost of remanufacturing mobile phones could be reduced by 50% per device if the industry made phones easier to take apart and offered incentives to return phones. Current obstacles include legislation in some countries by which use of remanufactured parts prevents products from being sold as new.
Design for material recovery — Many products like flat screen TVs must be disassembled by hand because of the mercury they contain. Hunter recalls a landfill visit in which they compared two seemingly very similar TVs: (for the anecdote) a Philips which was built with 300 screws in the back, with many different screw head patterns and (the other) a Samsung, which had 150 screws with a single pattern.